When the 2021 NFL Draft found its way to the Carolina Panthers' No. 8 pick on Thursday, quarterbacks Justin Fields and Mac Jones were still available.
There was much ballyhoo ahead of the draft that if the right signal-caller remained, the Panthers would select him despite having recently traded for Sam Darnold. However, Carolina went with cornerback Jaycee Horn in the first round and is going with Darnold at QB1.
In the mind of second-season head coach Matt Rhule, it wasn't because he doesn't see bright futures in the QBs who were available, it's that he's confident in where Darnold can take his team.
"I love those guys and I think they're gonna be great NFL players. I just think for us, when we got Sam and knowing he's 23-years-old, just turned 24, we just felt like Sam plus another player would be better for the team overall," Rhule said on the Rich Eisen Show. "We're just trying to build the whole team and I just believe in Sam, I believe that he deserves the opportunity to go out and play with us. I think those other young quarterbacks are gonna be fantastic players, but the hit rate on first-round quarterbacks isn't real, real high, and to have a chance to get Jaycee Horn and have Sam Darnold, we just kind of felt like, 'Hey this is two for one.' Now, we just have to make sure Sam's a great player for us."
As mentioned by Rhule, Darnold's set to turn 24 in June and isn't all that much older than the 22-year-old Fields and Jones. He's still (hopefully) a developing talent, who's set to play for his third head coach in four seasons and most importantly getting a second chance to prove he's a franchise quarterback. As the doubt regarding Darnold floated in the pre-draft air, it appears to have been undone by comments such as Rhule's and the team's decision to pick up Darnold's fifth-year option.
The USC product has emerged from three rough seasons in New York in which he played under two head coaches, behind an often-porous offensive line and often without much of a supporting cast in the receiving and rushing corps. The No. 3 pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, Darnold's tenure with the Jets saw him compile 8,097 yards passing, 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions. In his final campaign in Gotham, he had career-worsts with nine touchdown passes, 2,208 yards and a 72.7 passer rating.
So the question lingers surrounding Darnold as to whether he can be a bona fide NFL starting quarterback or if what was seen in New York is the real Darnold.
Rhule likes what he's seen enough from Darnold for the rebuilding Panthers to trade for him.
"We were sitting there one day on defense, and I can't remember (exactly) what we were watching, we were watching a cut up, and Sam was playing on the other side of the ball, and a couple times he made some throws, and Phil Snow, our defensive coordinator, was like, 'Man, that kid looks like Matt Stafford.' And so, we put a couple games on – and this is the defensive staff -- and they were all like, 'You know what, every game we watch, he makes a couple of big-time plays, and there has to be some meat on the bone there,' " Rhule said. "So, kind of went through the process and kept watching him and going back and watching him in college and watching his pro day and then going back and watching his first year in a different offense and the second year and his third year. When the compensation was enough where we didn't have to give up what we thought was too much that [it] would hurt our team and a chance to get him here, we'd watched so much tape on him that we saw enough shining moments."
Obviously, Rhule and Co. are aiming for more than just a few shining moments from Darnold when he hits the field in Panthers blue, black and silver. And they're hoping that the move south from New York to Carolina will be be a move up for Darnold's career -- and the Panthers franchise.
"After getting him here, talking to Robby Anderson who played with him, talking to other guys who played with him, there's not many guys who've been his teammates who's saying anything bad about him," Rhule said. "Like, they all have believed in him and believe that he can be good. Hearing some of his former coaches talk about him, they believe that he can be good and so I've always been kind of a nurture vs. nature guy, I think people have to be in the right situations and, you know, hopefully a change of scenery is what he needs."